New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: music

Brooklyn’s Best Music Venue Is in Trouble

Barbes is fifteen years old this month. Since 2003, the little Park Slope boîte has been home to the most fearlessly adventurous global sounds from across the borough and around the world. To give you an idea of what kind of magic takes place here, night after night, multi-instrumentalist Chi-Chi Glass played here a couple of nights ago and aired out a brand-new Peruvian piano ballad with lyrics by Maya Angelou, as well as part of an Albeniz piano sonata and a series of haunting Andean-tinged art-songs featuring the rapturously ethereal harmonies and accordion of La Rubias Del Norte’s Alyssa Lamb along with Judith Berkson.

A couple of nights before, psycho mambo band Gato Loco blasted through a set of percussively stalking noir themes with frequent detours into Ethio-jazz. And the Saturday before that, the band in the back room was Les Chauds Lapins, who unveiled a bunch of lush new classically-infused string arrangements to bolster the droll, surrealistic French swing they’ve made a name for themselves with, mostly here. There is nowhere else in New York, maybe in the world, where you can hear such diversely entertaining talent – and unless the venue can come up with seventy grand, there  may not be one anywhere.

They’ve raised a little more than half of that via Indiegogo with a month to go. There are all sorts of awesome musical perks for contributing. Characteristically, the amount you can donate on the page peaks out at $1000. These guys are populist to the core, and probably assume (pretty accurately, actually), that nobody has more than that to spare.

But this blog believes in angels. That’s a matter of personal experience. Having experienced a wave of computer meltdowns over the years, and having been rescued every time by a global support system, it seems more than reasonable to believe that there might be someone out there who’s experienced a degree of personal success and would take pride in rescuing a venue in a time of dire need. You can talk to owners Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas – the brain trust of legendary psychedelic cumbia band Chicha Libre here.

Another way to help is to treat yourself to a night of some of Barbes’ stable of amazing bands, who are playing a benefit concert on June 9 at Drom featuring mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who’s playing when is still being figured out, but everybody on this bill is worth seeing. Advance tix are a bargain at $20; the show starts at 7 PM and goes into the wee hours. It might be the single best concert of the year.

To lose Barbes would be a devastating blow to the arts in New York, but also would be personally devastating as well. In case you haven’t already figured it out, Barbes is New York Music Daily’s local – notwithstanding the fact that this blog isn’t based in Park Slope.

Sure, if Barbes closes, some of the younger and most popular acts can find gigs elsewhere. But there’s definitely no other place in New York that would provide a home where trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell could workshop their wickedly creepy Conqueror Worm Suite…or where resonator guitarist Mamie Minch could collaborate with film noir soundtrack maven Steve Ulrich…or where klezmer clarinet wizard Michael Winograd could pull together a band and figure out how he’s going to record all the amazing material he’s written over the past year.

Or where a rustic Greek rembetiko band called Que Vlo-ve could morph into one of this city’s mightiest and most menacing heavy psych bands, Greek Judas. Or where bands like Balkan brass funksters Slavic Soul Party, or western swingers Brain Cloud, or Romany guitar jazz reinventor Stephane Wrembel could play weekly residencies on off nights that would become legendary in Brooklyn history. In an era where spaces that support the arts are being displaced right and left by yuppie greed and status-grubbing, we need Barbes like never before. Hit their Indiegogo page,  tell your rich friends if you have any, and see you at Drom on June 9. 

Oud Virtuoso Rahim AlHaj Plays the Year’s Single Best Concert at Lincoln Center

From the moment he took the Lincoln Center stage this past evening, playing material off his new album Letters from Iraq, oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj – one of the world’s most eclectic and riveting musicians – made no secret of the fact that he’d really been looking forward to this gig. He has a wit to match the magic, and gravitas, and vast, global sweep and majesty of his compositions. “Here, I can talk about Trump and not worry that they’re going to take me away,” he joked. More seriously, took care to mention that he was genuinely concerned about his trio getting broken up at the airport by Homeland Security. AlHaj sarcastically calls the group the “Axis of Evil,” since santoor player Sourena Sefati is Iranian and percussionist Issa Malluf is Palestinian. While the trio promote global unity – which is the opposite of terrorism – the concern is that Trump and his minions don’t see it that way. “This administration wants to divide us,” AlHaj warned, but added defiantly that if we all pull together, that will never amount to more than a pipe dream for the extreme right.

The trio followed with a performance that ran the gamut of human emotions: sometimes harrowing, often haunting, but also kinetic and dancing, with a delirious, exhilarating stampede out at the end. They opened on a distantly somber note with an adaptation of a string quartet AlHaj had written for a friend at the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Soberingly, AlHaj reminded that sanctions against the nation have taken their toll in child mortality, illustrated by the fact that his violinist pal no longer plays: he had to burn his violin one night to provide heat for his critically ill infant. A big, insistent cadenza punctuated the song’s serpentine interweave of notes, Sefati taking a judiciously incisive solo midway through.

By contrast, AlHaj explained that the wryly bouncy Chant was inspired by how his mom would sing to keep the bratty kids around her from getting out of hand. The oudist infused this lilting, practically Celtic minor-key dance with frequent wry bent-note riffage. The trio followed the pensively swaying, chromatically edgy One Voice with a clapalong in 10/8 time, the crowd’s irrepressible energy matching the group onstage, throughout a toweringly moody theme sparkling with intricate harmonies from the santoor and oud.

Sefati opened what was arguably the  high point of the night with a suspenseful, Mediterranean-tinged solo taqsim; then the group took it in a far more uneasy, anthemic direction over Malluf’s briskly strolling beats, AlHaj anchoring Sefati’s icepick insistence.

The picturesque Fly Away soared with elegant harmonies from earth to sky from oud and santoor, respectively, a wickedly catchy, interlocking riff at the center. Again, Sefati took centerstage, choosing his spots as AlHaj and Malluf held the melody to the ground.  On the number after that, the santoorist had fun with the rapidfire trills that AlHaj had originally written for accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek.

AlHaj explained that he’d written the night’s lone vocal tune when he was 13. That he’d based it on an Iranian maqam as an Iraqi kid during the Iran/Iraq War speaks to his fearlessness. The three musicians closed with a race to the finish line, speeding up again and again over a catchy Kurdish dance vamp. Yet all the energy, and passion, and frequent humorous japes were matched by a somber undercurrent, party music for a city and a world increasingly under siege.

There is another oud performance coming up at Lincoln Center that all New York fans of Middle Eastern music should be aware of. On July 29 at 8 PM, Palestinian brother ensemble Trio Joubran play a tribute to their longtime mentor and collaborator, legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish at the theatre at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St; $30 seats are available and worth it.

Miklos Lukacs’ Bewitching Cimbalom Unlimited Play an Epic Album Release Show at Drom

The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night.

Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.

A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo.

From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way.

Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.

Happy Tenth Birthday to Manhattan’s Best Music Venue

[adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming photo book celebrating the tenth anniversary of Manhattan’s edgiest music venue and romantic date spot, Drom]

Every great city is defined by its artistic spaces. Paris has the Louvre and the Bataclan, London has the Royal Albert Hall, New York has the Met and and Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre.

But every city also has a secret history. No real history of New York in the past decade would be complete without Drom, Manhattan’s global music mecca since 2007.

High on the back wall of the lowlit, old-world space, there’s an amber-toned painting of the Galata Tower, an iconic landmark on the western Istanbul skyline. In the shadow of the tower is a historic neighborhood which throughout the centuries has been home to churches, mosques and also a synagogue. That striking image mirrors the inclusive sensibility central to the philosophy at Drom, in a decade of booking artists from around the world, from every tradition from the West and beyond.

Among New York venues booking music and the arts from around the globe, Drom is the only one over the past half-century to succeed without corporate or public funding. In an era in Manhattan increasingly defined by rising rents and displacement of independent business, that achievement is all the more astonishing, testament to the tirelessness and depth of vision of founders Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, bolstered by their partner Ekmel Anda.

The two are a contrast in personalities: Ilhan, the aesthete, an accomplished visual artist with a focus and drive to create a milieu that best represents the vast range of artists who grace the stage there. Dede, the gregarious impresario, with a similarly vast address book and fearlessness to match the eclecticism of the acts he books. In a field that can be awfully shady, Ilhan and Dede aren’t afraid to be transparent with their terms. No wonder so many artists from around the world, and across New York’s five boroughs, have made their North American or New York debuts here.

The space itself is both indelibly urban and urbane. The wrought iron steps down to the brickwalled basement-level landing are gritty New York to the core. Inside the front doors, past the plush red velvet curtains, an oasis reveals itself.

Before it was Drom, the high-ceilinged, L-shaped space was a neighborhood dance club called Opaline. Ilhan completely gutted and redesigned it himself, directing renovations from up on a ladder. The contrast of elegant dark wood paneling and rustic brick under the low light of the chandeliers reflect a welcoming atmosphere. The same friendly faces work here, night after night – everybody seems comfortable here, a rarity at music venues and even more so in the service industry.

The only feature from the old space that Ilhan retained was the L-shape and the high ceiling, which enhances the sonics: Drom is a live room. No matter who’s onstage – a classical ensemble, a jazz group, a blazing Balkan brass band or hip-hop – the sound is reliably good. Depending on the music or the performance – Drom has also been home to the Fringe Festival and other theatrical performances over the years – there might be tables, or the entire floor might be opened up for concertgoers. The bar always fills up fast: the wine is good, the bartenders are friendly and it’s one of the few places in all of New York where you can find Yeni Raki, the delicious anise liqueur.

Ilhan got his start in show business in the theatre: his first booking at the Town Hall was a sellout. When Dede first began booking music at Drom, he was doing regular Balkan events at a gritty Alphabet City bar a few blocks further east. Since their first days producing the annual New York Gypsy Festival, this city’s most wide-ranging series of concerts featuring performers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Balkans , the two have combined to offer more diverse programming than any other venue in all of New York, in the same vein as Barbes in Brooklyn.

Long before Obama hinted at normalizing relations with Cuba, Drom was booking Cuban artists. Since its inception, the venue has been the first stop in Manhattan for Russian bands. Before Snarky Puppy became the most happening thing in progressive jazz, they were playing here as well. Boban Markovic took the stage at Drom years before his Balkan wedding and funeral band began packing Lincoln Center. Iconic jazz drummer Chico Hamilton played his final show on that stage, while noted klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s Glass House Ensemble made their debut here, among countless other artists’ genre-defying projects, blending Eastern European, Mediterranean and jazz sounds.

Meanwhile, Ilhan and Dede have expanded beyond their home base. They’re the only American promoters doing national tours for some of the most happening Turkish rock and folk acts. And numerous iconic Turkish artists have made their American debuts at Ilhan and Dede’s annual showcase, Istanbulive – “the Turkish Woodstock.”

You could make a case that Drom is CBGB, LaMaMa, Carnegie Hall and Mehanata – the downtown Bulgarian bar where Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz held court for so many years – rolled into one. Except that the sound is on par with any good New York jazz venue, and the ambience is more inviting: among New York music spots, few are as unabashedly romantic as Drom.

If your agenda in running a music blog is to cover the entirety of New York and the vast expanse of styles across this city, you need to move around a lot. But it helps to have an anchor. In Manhattan, Drom is New York Music Daily’s home base. If you’ve followed this blog, especially if sounds from around the world and the Balkans are concerned, you’re no stranger to Drom. If you’ve never been, now is as good a time as any to discover the space. June is looking especially hot. Since they’re celebrating ten years of going against the tide – seriously, did anybody really expect these guys to last ten months, let alone ten years? – their ten-year celebration month is off the hook. Just for starters, on June 9 at 7 there’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Advance tix are a bargain at $20.

Then on June 10 at 8 Romany guitar legend Stephane Wrembel airs out material from his wildly eclectic, psychedelic new double album The Django Experiment, with another show at 11 by Brooklyn Balkan brass faves Slavic Soul Party featuring sensational Serbian trumpeter Demirhan Cerimovic; advance tix for those are $15.

On June 14, the wildfire NY Gypsy All-Stars are joined by brilliant guest oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9:30; advance tix are $10. On June 21 at 8, there’s one of the year’s hottest jazz lineups: imagine seeing the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on sax, leading a quintet with Randy Brecker, the great Chano Dominguez on piano, with James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, for real, and for fifteen bucks! And for fans of serious esoterica, percussionist Navin Chettri‘s band makes jazz out of rarely heard Nepali themes on June 25 at 9:30, and that’s ten bucks if you buy in advance. That’s just a taste of what’s coming up.

Which is something that adventurous New York concertgoers have taken for granted, and can pretty much still take for granted. Day in, day out, nobody in Manhattan does more fearless programming than these guys. July will no doubt be just as good as June…then there’s the annual New York Gypsy Festival to look forward to as we get into the fall. Here’s to another ten years of minor keys, intoxicating grooves and Yeni Raki!

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

Misha Piatigorsky’s Unpredictably Fun Sketchy Orkestra Entertains the Crowd in the West Village

This past evening at the Poisson Rouge, pianist Misha Piatigorsky led his twelve-piece Sketchy Orkestra through a long, heavily front-loaded set that was as eclectic as it was entertaining. Piatigorsky is a rugged individualist who’s invented his own style of music: part art-rock, part chamber jazz, part neoromanticism and part soul music. It can be part other things too, but we’ll get to that. His lushly dynamic Sketchy Orkestra is sort of a NYChillharmonic Junior, although Piatigorsky’s group is smaller and also plays imaginatively rearranged covers in addition to originals. With his gruff, sardonic lounge lizard persona and irrepressibly ebullient sense of humor, he impressed the most with the earliest material in the set.

He opened the best song of the night, an original, solo on piano, with a creepy, modal, suspenseful intro straight out of Rachmaninoff. Then a fiery violin cadenza kicked off a blissfully edgy, dancing Sephardic melody over which soul belter Emily Braden eventually sang. They brought it full circle at the end.

Another high point was a hushed, pointillistically tiptoeing, vintage 60s noir soul ballad held aloft by the nine-piece string section. Piatigorsky can be subtle, but onstage, he’s a showman, dueling with his bandmates, shifting meters and tempos on a dime in tandem with ace drummer Anwar Marshall (who also knows a thing or two about propelling large ensembles). Piatigorsky traded riffs with bassist Noah Jackson and then later the violin section during a closing crescendo: nobody missed a beat.

A couple of times during a lustrously reinvented art-rock instrumental version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, he switched up the tempo and took a couple of jagged, two-fisted solos that careened into Euro-jazz territory. Piatigorsky’s playing sometimes brings to mind Dave Brubeck, at other times Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker – especially in the night’s most gospel-tinged moments – and another 60s guy, Reginald Dwight, who almost took Brooker’s place in that band. But ultimately, Piatigorsky is his own animal.

A tongue-in-cheek, funky cover of Strawberry Fields Forever took similar detours into jazz territory without losing sight of the song’s surrealistic charm. “I’m glad I wrote that one,” Piatigorsky deadpanned afterward. “They named a park after it.”

“This next one is by a fellow Jew, a member of the tribe. He loved his women. He loved his drugs.” Piatigorsky paused. “I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the great Leonard Cohen.” And followed with the most epic version of Hallelujah that anyone ever could have attempted. The strings opened it, a wounded pavane of sorts; from there, the pianist made a mashup of gospel, art-rock and finally vintage Ashford and Simpson soul out of it. Yeah, the song should be retired and was pretty much ruined for good when Jeff Buckley did that florid cover. If only Piatigorsky could have beaten him to it.

There was other material on the bill. Oy, was there ever. Looking back, at least the rapper in the Wu-Tang shirt was good. To anyone who ever plays any of the Bleecker Street bars (and yeah, the Poisson Rouge is one of them, if a more pretentious and expensive one): these rubes from Jersey can’t tell Beethoven from Beyonce. They don’t even listen to music: they watch tv. The internet? What’s that? They’re only here because their parents came here back in the 60s and they think that being in “The City” suddenly makes them cool. They’ll applaud anything you give them. There’s no need to dumb down your set because these people can’t tell whether they’re being patronized, or actually being exposed to something worth hearing. Either way, they’ll be bragging to their friends back in Fort Lee about it.

Oh yeah – if you’re wondering who the hell Reginald Dwight is, he could have been in one of the alltime great art-rock bands, but instead he went solo and started calling himself Elton John. Whatever you think of his schlocky tunesmithing, he’s a kick-ass pianist.

Talavya Treats the Throngs to Torrential Tabla Thrills

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Talavya’s harmonium player Heena Patel scrunched up her face. Facing the crowd, she explained her dilemma.”I tell people that this band plays tabla. They say, ‘No vocals. no melody.’” She shrugged.

And then let those thoughts resonate. “What do YOU think of tabla?” she wanted to know.

The crowd exploded. Sure, there was a good representation of New Yorkers with heritage in the Hindustani subcontinent, but there were more who probably had none. This demographically diverse, typical New York audience had just witnessed a suspenseful, electrifying three-way drum duel between tabla players Rushi Vakil, Kaumil Shah and Mike Lukshis.

On one hand, it was a breathtaking display of supersonic chops. On the other, the first segment of composer Divyang Vakil’s suite Tabla Dreams was just as much of a showcase for subtlety as well as the group’s encyclopedic rollout of Indian beats from across the centuries.

Those chops were matched by a sense of humor. It might be extreme to equate this performance to having three Zakir Hussains onstage, but the effect was pretty close. Each player’s personality immediately made itself known. Rushi Vakil made it look easy and more often than not served as the ringleader, completely deadpan, unless he was winding up a frenetic volley with a final slap and then flinging his hand away, daring his bandmates to match his finesse and power. Shah has an attack with ferocity to match his articulation: imagine a machinegunner who can also hit a target at a thousand yards. The New Jersey-born Lukshis, front and center, rose to the challenge of playing on the level of his Indian-born bandmates, who probably grew up with a tabla in front of them before they could walk. His right hand a blur, his beats spun and somersaulted and sometimes galloped in an endlessly adrenalizing series of tradeoffs along with the occasional stampeding unison passage.

The tabla is the rare drum which can also play melody, and the group delivered plenty of those. The most breathtaking was a recurrent low-register sirening effect. The funniest was when they’d play a series of riffs and then perfectly replicate them by vocalizing in rapidfire takadimi drum language – a playful Indian mnemonic device where every beat from various places on the tabla, from muted, to sharp, to low and warpy, has an equivalent syllable. Meanwhile Patel anchored the music with an endlessly circling series of enigmatic, often ominous modal riffs, serving as co-conductor and signaling changes when the three guys would go off on a rampage.

The suite’s first part was mostly tradeoffs; the second featured the more intricate and delicate beats a tabla player can deliver. The third was a clinic in gats, encompassing both rhythmic riffs and shifting time signatures, rising and falling and finally winding up in a blaze that left both band and audience out of breath. Patel averred that this was the band’s first US performance in a year – hopefully we won’t have to wait another until the next one.

These Lincoln Center atrium performances are amazing. The next one in the ongoing series of performers from around the world is this Thursday, May 25 at 7:30 PM with one of the world’s greatest and most eclectic oud players and composers, Rahim Al Haj. Admission is free; get there early if you want a seat.

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

Heavy Psych Trio River Cult Make a Twisted Live EP

Heavy psychedelic trio River Cult spun off of an excellent, similarly loud and underrated Brooklyn postrock band, Eidetic Seeing. Their debut ep got the thumbs up here; their latest one, Live at WFMU is up as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp. More bands should be making live albums – if you’re paying for studio time, it’s infinitely cheaper, and you can capture what the band really sounds like. Do it right and it’s the best advertising you could have. They’re bringing their cinematic, unhinged, doomy sounds to the Cobra Club in Bushwick on May 27 at 11 PM; cover is $10.

They open the album’s first number, Likelihood of Confusion with a syncopated sway and then straighten it out, drummer Tav Palumbo’s nimble flurries under guitarist/frontman Sean Forlenza’s sunbaked blues riffage in tandem with bassist Anthony Mendolia. “Sobriety! In the breeze,” Forlenza sneers. “I can’t get by…it just gets boring.” But this doesn’t, through a Stoogoid wah solo, a bit of finger, then an echoing pulsar interlude that Palumbo eventually crashes the band out of.

They segue out of that epic into the even longer, practically ten-minute Temps Perdu, stomping their way through what could be the early Dream Syndicate playing Sir Lord Baltimore. Mendolia goes up the scale as Forlenza holds his notes, bends the walls, shivers and then descends toward a mournful abyss as the rhythm slows and then falls away.

The longest, most twistedly picturesque and final cut is Shadow Out of Time. Forlenza plays echoey slide over a dirgy sway, then all of a sudden they pick up steam and they’re into Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth with offcenter bass/guitar harmonies. And then into galloping post-Sabbath: “It gets hard to breathe when you know you just wanna be dead,” Forlenza snarls. The studio version collapses into its own grave; the slow lights-on-lights-off outro here is even better and just as creepy. On the floor, headphones on, you know the drill. Is that just ash or is there something in there?

Trombonist Michael Dease’s Latest Album: How Many Flavors Can You Handle?

Trombonist Michael Dease‘s latest album All These Hands – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is an ambitious jazz travelogue. The title is a characteristically wry reference to the fact that he’s got so many people on it. On one hand, it’s a chance for the bandleader to show off his command of a whole bunch of regional styles: lookit me, I’m in New Orleans! Now I’ve gone back to the Delta to visit Robert Johnson’s grave! But what’s consistent, beyond the relevance and the sometimes grim historical references throughout this vast, diverse collection, is the tunesmithing. Riffs jump out at you from all over and have you humming them afterward despite yourself. No wonder all these big names want to play with him: the core band on the album has Renee Rosnes on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Steve Wilson doing his usual multi-reed thing, with Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Napoleon on guitar. Dease is leading most of this band over a weekend stand on May 26 and 27 at 10:30 PM at Smalls.

Before we leave town here, what does Dease’s portrait of Brooklyn sound like? Kenny G? A trombone with a drum machine? A virtual trombone? Wait, those are Notbrooklyn things, as we say around these parts. Set to Nash’s steady, flickering clave groove, Dease’s Brooklyn is latin, and full of light/dark contrasts and hints of early Steely Dan – Brooklyn knows the charmer under this guy. In fact, it’s one of the album’s best songs, with a deliciously slippery bass solo from guest Rufus Reid.

The rest of the album measures up strongly. The opening number, Creole Country is balmier and more bossa-tinged than the name might imply, the beat loosening into a shuffle artfully and imperceptibly, Rosnes anchoring Dease and Wilson’s airy lines. Delta City Crosssroads is a sagely animated conversation between Dease’s muted, tongue-in-cheek character and Napoleon’s rustic slide man. There are two similar blues duets later on: the Detroit shout-out Black Bottom Banger, between Dease and Cannon, and Memphis Fish Fry, Dease pairing off jauntily against Rosnes’ Fender Rhodes.

The Dizzy Gillespie-inspired Good & Terrible is another catchy clave tune, Rosnes again grounding Dease’s purposeful, airy solo, Cannon taking a wry tiptoe tangent. Territory Blues is as straight-up as a swing blues can get, with purist solos from Cannon and Napoleon – whose presence on what sounds like a National steel guitar is an unexpectedly welcome touch. Benny’s Bounce is another swing tune with a long series of handoffs: Dease’s bubbly solo to Wilson’s more airy tenor, Rosnes’ clusters and Cannon finally hitting that Benny Golson-influenced bounce.

The band goes back to the default clave for the album’s most epic track, Downtown Chi-Town, which could just as easily be Spanish Harlem, Wilson’s spiraling flute handing off to the bandleader, percolating as he chooses his spots and then giving Wilson the floor for some enigmatically modal explorations on tenor. Everybody gets into the act at the end.

Dease opens Gullah Shout Ring with a long, allusively bluesy solo and then holds the center as guitar and bass flutter and stab at the perimeter – it’s the freest number here, at least until they pull it together into another swing blues with an implied Heartbreak Hotel vibe. Muted suspense and chirpy trombone-and-trumpet riffs punctuate the goodnatured Chocolate City, a diptych of sorts that goes completely in the opposite direction, fueled by Rosnes and Dease: it’s a riveting piece of music with a real payoff. Guest bassist Rodney Whitaker makes the most of a solo piece to end the album, mashing up the blues with a moody, ragaesque quality. It’s awfully rare that you hear an album with so many flavors which is as this solid as this one is all the way through. Count on Dease to pull out just as many over Memorial Day weekend.